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Sometimes they work backward from a sample of, say, pomegranate juice, which they run through a gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer, a pair of instruments that heat up the fluid and vaporize the juice's molecules one by one.
The development process begins with a very specific idea.The taste must be instantly recognizable, says Lisa Brasher, a fifth-generation member of the founding family and executive vice chairman of the board. When you say 'potato chip,' do you mean regular or barbecue?Those are very important questions for us." Thus, the food scientists and marketers taste-test extensively to find what sort of pickle is most pickle-y, whether Bartlett or D'Anjou screams "pear" loudest, and which specific combination of spices, dairy notes, and pumpkin puree sends you straight back to your grandma's pie.Occasionally, the scientists' success overtakes them, as when an experimental four-cheese pizza bean managed to empty a whole mixing room with its noxious smell.But even disasters can redeem themselves: with the release of the company's Beanboozled novelty line, cheese pizza, with a few tweaks, became barf. Even with all his technical skill, Lee acknowledges, he sometimes finds that human taste buds are the most sensitive detectors of flavor: "They can pick up it when something is missing," he says.When they began development of the chili mango bean, Elise Bernstein, a food scientist, says, they descended on a local Trader Joe's and spirited bag after bag of the chili-covered fruit to their labs for tasting.Sourcing inspirational ingredients is a matter of utmost importance in the design of a flavor.Intuition and creativity are also integral to his work.The buttered toast flavor was languishing in the lab, with something lacking from that delicious burnt taste, until Lee, on instinct, added a dab of caramel.Even the buttered popcorn flavor (loved by many, hated by many), was the result of his tinkering in the lab with corn, butter, and salt flavors, just to see what he could come up with. To those in the business of building flavors, memories of tastes and scents can be especially poignant.Brasher, who grew up eating pomegranates on a family farm, sent early pomegranate beans back to the kitchen because they lacked the distinctive tartness.